This edition of Dear TMH is dedicated to one simple question: How do you clean up after you – or your partner or roommate – have infected your dwelling with gross cold germs? Want me to test out a recipe or a cleaning tactic you’ve heard about? I’ll do that, too. Just e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or post a note in the comments.
It’s cold and flu season and I’m wondering if you have any tips on how to disinfect your house once you’ve finally shaken a cold? I usually throw out my toothbrush and clean the sheets, but what else should be on my post-sickness checklist?
I love this question, and it was fun to dive into the specifics. And yes, I have lots of tips. First, I think it helps to define a couple terms. Even though we use the words “sanitize” and “disinfect” interchangeably, they actually mean different things, at least in the eyes of the Environmental Protection Agency. I referred to my copy of Home Comforts to learn the difference.
“A sanitizer is a chemical that kills a certain percentage of specific test bacteria within a specific short time span. Sanitizers reduce the number of microorganisms to a safe level according to public health coodes or regulations; but they do not necessarily eliminate all the micro-organisms on a surface.”
“A disinfectant destroys or irreversibly inactivates all test micro-organisms but not necessarily their spores.”
Most home cleaners can both sanitize and disinfect – it just depends on how long you let the cleaner sit on the dirty area. If it sits long enough, the area becomes disinfected. A couple things to keep in mind, however. The cleaner often needs to sit for significant lengths of time until a surface can be considered disinfected. Take the common Clorox or Lysol Disinfecting Wipes. A close study of the label reveals that a dirty countertop needs to remain “visibly wet” for 30 seconds until it is sanitized and 4 minutes until it is disinfected. If using the environmentally friendly Seventh Generation Disinfecting Wipes the area needs to sit visibly wet for 10 minutes until the area is considered disinfected. The best part about those wipes is that they don’t leave too much liquid behind and counters dry quickly. This means you aren’t disinfecting anything.
This isn’t just disposable wipes. Counters wiped with a bleach solution (1 cup bleach in 1 gallon of water) need to stand visibly wet for 5 minutes until considered disinfected.
This raises an obvious question, of course: Do you actually need to disinfect your home to keep a cold from spreading? The short answer is “no.” Any cleaning you do will kill some germs; it just depends on how thorough you want to be. Remember, the cold and flu are spread both through surfaces and the air. The best way you can avoid getting sick is to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly and avoid touching your face. Yes, what your mother told you is true.
Fortunately, cold and flu bugs don’t stick around forever. According to the Mayo Clinic, most cold viruses can live up to 48 hours outside the body. Flu viruses tend to live a little longer.
So, what should you clean? This is what I always do after my wife or I get sick:
Wash all the towels, sheets and pillowcases. Do the laundry in hot water, too. Make sure to wash anything that touched the sick person’s face.
Wipe down any frequently touched items. This includes: Light switches, door handles, keyboards, phones, faucet handles, the refrigerator door and the car steering wheel. Use alcohol swabs to clean sensitive items like computers and phones. It won’t leave a residue behind. Use your favorite bleach-based cleaner for everything else.
Empty the trash and clean the trash can. Especially if it had lots of snotty tissues sitting in it.
Clean toothbrushes. Instead of throwing out toothbrushes, just soak them in hydrogen peroxide for 5 minutes. Hydrogen peroxide goes stale after 9 months; make sure to have a fresh bottle on hand.
Open the windows and let the sun shine. Cold season is in the winter for a number of reasons, but one of them is because fresh air doesn’t circulate into buildings as often. Get some fresh air in your home, even if that means making it chilly for a little while. The sun is also a great sanitizer. The glass in our windows blocks about 50 percent of UV radiation, so if you really want to sanitize something – like a rug – take it outside.
I hope this helps you stay healthy this winter, even if other people in your home get sick.